On The Ground At Rotterdam 2014: Part 3

Read Laya's earlier dispatches from Rotterdam:

Part 1

Part 2

It took me six days to realize that Rotterdam is the kind of festival where I would be happier if I was watching the films that had been deemed fit by other festivals. I also realized that I would be happier still if I just gave up on watching films and used the limited time left to interact with people. The best thing about Rotterdam is that despite such a large slate of programming (too large, in my opinion), the festival possesses an intimate and social vibe that’s extremely gratifying. It is easier to bump into directors and actors, set up dinners with colleagues or make acquaintances of people in Rotterdam than it is at festivals usually.

This preamble was necessary to place in context the movie-light days that follow below:

DAY 7: January 28

I began the day with Aaron Wilson’s "Canopy," an Australian war drama. Set in 1942, the film begins with a plane crash that dooms an Australian pilot to wade through the inhospitable Singaporean jungles. He soon runs into a local soldier, and the two join hands to evade near-certain death.

After walking out of "Canopy," a colleague remarked that this 84-minute film could easily have been 70 minutes shorter. The film has nothing much to it, being turgid in presentation and visuals but hopelessly insular and inert in everything else. The story’s lack of structure handicaps it early and repeatedly, rendering the climax weightless. To make things worse, I was further put off by a hint of white supremacy embedded in the film.

Canopy

I tried to make amends by going for "D'où je viens (Where I’m From)", a Canadian documentary wherein director Claude Demers returns to Montreal, the district he grew up in, and tries to relive the experiences he had for the first time as a child. My opinions on the films here may now be verging towards monotony, but I cannot overemphasize the emotion with which I say this: "Where I’m From" was the worst film I saw at the 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam. This is a documentary so ill-conceived that its bafflingly bad execution only makes matters worse. In sequences that would not find room even in the laziest Terrence Malick parody, a not-insignificant portion of the film is made up of arbitrarily inserted aerial footage of the locality with classical compositions.

I did not see anything else this day. Probably for the best. This one-two punch was enough to make me want to take my mind off cinema for a bit.

Where I'm From

DAY 8: January 29

The festival had organized a retrospective for Danish director Nils Malmros, someone whose oeuvre I had hitherto remained ignorant of. Thus, I headed to watch his 1981 classic, "Tree of Knowledge." Set in late-1950s Århus, the film follows a class of schoolchildren over the course of several months, as they tackle gangs, growing up, crushes and bitter rivalry. Knowledge is conclusive proof – if anyone still needed any – that often the most unaffected storytelling can lead to the most affecting results. There is little visible setup-and-payoff to the events in "Knowledge;" they evolve by themselves, as in life. Moreover, the film accurately paints school, not as a nostalgic pool of good times or a cartoonish hierarchy of jocks-and-nerds, but as a complex social structure in itself. It recognizes how brutal children can get towards each other while simultaneously depicting how sometimes the cruelest acts arise not out of innate meanness but because of circumstance. This is sad, lovely film and I am so glad I finally saw it.

Knowledge

The day ended with trying out an experiment: Rick Prelinger’s "No More Road Trips?," a documentary composed entirely of home videos of American trips, arranged to chart a similar trip from New York to Los Angeles. Perhaps most intriguingly, Prelinger refused to use any soundtrack or dialogue in the film except ambient noise; the film begins with a disclaimer reading, “Please make your own soundtrack”. An intriguing choice, the audience-sourced aural accompaniment is something that I can envision working in a utopian viewing environment. However, the only memorable "track" my soundtrack contained was the snoring of the person behind me. The documentary itself is interesting, and gets progressively better as it overcomes some sloppy editing. Prelinger uses footage of road trips to also portray the place they hold in an American family’s lives, and the result is a historical and geographical tour of the country.

DAY 9: January 30

The synopsis for "Kamera Obskura" made it sound unmistakably unique: A Filipino variation on "The Artist," this film opened with a press conference announcing the discovery of a silent film that was "far ahead of its time." This silent plays midway through the event and we as viewers witness this discovery at the same time as the people attending the conference.

It’s a new variation on the movie-within-a-movie gimmick, but doesn’t transcend that. "Kamera Obskura" gets stale very quickly as its simple themes—of corruption percolating into every aspect of society—are presented without any acknowledgement of their simplicity. The silent does not resemble any silent film whatsoever, with title cards containing up to five lines of text.

Ultimately, the movie’s pretentiousness gets obnoxious and the ultimate "reveal," which takes place mid-credits, is so obnoxious it made me feel like leaving.

Kamera

"On the Edge" was pitched to me as a Danish riff on the "Fast & Furious" franchise, and at this point of the festival, that is exactly what I needed. The description turned out to be a little hit-and-miss, as this is "Fast & Furious" with PTSD and mopey heroes. (Who hasn’t wished for that combination?) Yet, "On the Edge" was fun. Dumb, clichéd and unintentionally hilarious fun, but fun nevertheless. It featured the best scene I saw in the festival (a "cool" so raucously funny the "Fast & Furious" series is miles behind) and was the only Rotterdam world premiere that I did not dislike. (They can put that on the poster if they want.)

On The Edge

DAY 10: January 31

This was the last day of films for me at the festival, and I could not have picked a film more accurately representative of my experience over the 10 days.

I had not yet seen an Indian film at the festival (at least, one that I managed to stay awake through). Thus, it was with partly patriotic fervor that I chose Geethu Mohandas’ "Liar’s Dice," a road movie. The film tracked the adventures of a resolute woman from a village on the Indo-Tibetan border, who travels to Delhi to find her missing husband.

My biggest takeaway from "Liar's Dice" is how ugly it looked. The film’s terrible visual palette is especially surprising, since cinematographer Rajeev Ravi also produced it. Dice has insipidly framed photography throughout, with a few shots not even clear or well lit. This is an added shame, since some sharp visuals might have helped prop up the lifeless drama in Dice, too uninvolving and long to evoke any attention. The resolution of this search is a powerful sequence, but it occurs nearly 85 minutes into the film (and around 70 minutes after you have lost interest).

Liar's Dice

CONCLUDING NOTES:

Thus ended my time at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. I saw a total of 24 films, and liked maybe half a dozen. I would have ended up seeing titles like "Nebraska" and "Blue Ruin" anyway, so it feels like cheating to attribute that to the festival’s tally. That terrible ratio (a batting average of 0.25 is egregious) also helps explain my lack of industriousness. It is just hard to work oneself up with the enthusiasm of seeing four films in a day if they are almost uniformly bad.

Well, let’s hope next year is better. It would have to suck pretty hard not to be.